With the haze-filtered district of Kallang as backdrop, Sukki emerges onto the streets and walks briskly towards Lavender MRT station. Standing among the hoi polloi and the drab surroundings, she sticks out like a vibrantly-coloured sore thumb. Her hair glows brazenly in rich hues of violet and azure, while her outfit, no less sprightly, looks exactly like Middle Eastern royalty.
You’d expect no lesser display of vim and vigour, of course. After all this is Sukki Singapora, the only professional burlesque performer from our little city-state who’s pretty much made it internationally.
At only 25 years of age (she’s turning 26 next month) her list of achievements is already impressive, despite getting into the burlesque industry only recently. In four years, she’s managed to be the face of burlesque for Singapore, playing countless shows across the globe and getting recognised in each city — where she gets interview requests almost every day.
Perhaps the most prestigious recognition, however, was an invitation to have tea at Buckingham Palace, the first-ever burlesque performer to be royally recognised for her work. “The tea was a bit too milky, but the baked goods were delicious,” she enthused about her experience.
We exchange a few more pleasantries before heading off deeper into the heartlandic wilderness. We trail behind Sukki, observing old aunties, uncles and other randoms gawp at this chromatic figure walking past Old Chang Kee, Ananas Cafe and multiple other antiquated stores in Kallang. We end up at Fitness Dynamix dance studio for a quick rehearsal ahead of her hotly anticipated shows tonight and tomorrow at the Capitol Theatre.
Assisted by fellow burlesque dancer Miss Zee, she tries on a pair of shimmery platform pumps and takes a look at the mirror, admiring the prop that she’ll be wearing for the show. Though from the beginning of our encounter Sukki had been an absolute ball of easy affability, the dance studio — a very familiar domain to her — was where she appears completely at ease. She warms up by putting on an FKA Twigs track, a very appropriate one considering both Twigs and Sukki are prominent, practised performers dealing in the art of utmost sensuality.
They get to work. It’s just a couple of days to the big debut so it’s starting to get a bit hectic — Sukki needs to get two routines down right with Miss Zee and they go through the steps together. Each process is gone over a few times as the two lock down what will happen on the night itself, diligently poring through every single detail. They ask Sukki’s PR rep to get the whole thing recorded on her phone so Miss Zee can go over it again later.
As very burlesque-y music blared out on the speakers, Sukki’s concentrated moves contain a drill-like intensity to it — she’s an old hand in the business of burlesque. How she got her start has been documented to death by various publications: Growing up in a traditional household under the tutelage of a British mother and a Singaporean Indian father, she had been doing pretty well in an IT company while living in the UK when a comedy club opened near her residence. She went up to the proprietors, claiming that she was a professional burlesque dancer despite not knowing a single thing about it. They believed her story and gave her a slot.
After an extensive autodidactic week by way of YouTube videos, the first time she performed turned out to be nothing short of a calamity — everything went wrong for her. The 300-odd audience however thought her comedic turn as a bungling burlesque dancer was part of the act, and loved the performance. From then onwards, she lived a double life — an IT tech by day and a showgirl by night. She then went on to be Sukki Singapora full time, and an icon was born.
At one point during the rehearsals at the dance studio, Sukki warns Miss Zee that on stage she might forget some stage directions — like where she might throw her corset, and so forth — because she gets emotional on stage. I ask her what she meant by that.
“In all my routines, I make them really personal to me. I base them off my experiences; for example in one of my routines my outfit is in black and white stripes because it reminds me of my childhood when I was obsessed with the Siberian tigers at the Singapore Zoo.”
She wears her culture and identity literally on her sleeves, weaving in saris into her costume as a personal expression. “When I’m on stage, I feel like I’m baring my soul and it means a lot to me — so occasionally I don’t think about stage details. I just go with the flow, really feel the beat and it becomes this organic, fluid thing”.
This inclination towards weaving every aspect of her life into her craft is a recurrent theme with Sukki Singapora. Burlesque has effectively seeped through every facet of her being by now, be it in career, activism or feminist beliefs.
It’s all about female empowerment, she says, as burlesque allows women to be sensual without being a sexual object. “Women reclaiming their sexuality for no one else but themselves — that’s the kind of feminism I’m talking about”.
It seems like the fate of Sukki Singapora has always been intertwined with the spirit of burlesque. “I think going into burlesque was inevitable. The whole combination of super artistic dance knowledge and hugely feminist expression meant that it was inevitable. I know I would have gravitated towards it at some point, somehow, anyway”.
In terms of activism, her list of achievements are as formidable as her corsets. She’s a global ambassador for The Sharan Project — a charity that supports women who’ve suffered disownment and empower them to lead life on their own terms. She founded the Singapore Burlesque Society, for greater public awareness of what the art of burlesque really is. She’s currently working on a campaign called ‘Dare to Dream’ which hopes to inspire young people to see that a career in the arts is actually a stable path to pursue.
With the dance rehearsal locked down, we’re off to the Capitol Theatre to check out the premises where the show she’s headlining, Boudoir Noire, is taking place. A conversation in the taxi reveals that Sukki Singapora isn’t all about the sensual, smouldering woman we see on stage and in the copious posters planted across town promoting the event. A supreme cat lover at heart, we exchange pictures of our cats while talking about her geeky indulgences, including her affection for all things Trekkie (she named one of her cats Seven of Nine), the new Star Wars flick on the horizon, Spore and GTA: San Andreas.
Bolstered by her assurance that we were the first publication ever to take a peek into what Boudoir Noire will look like, we enter the Capitol Theatre which has transformed into a rather super-sleek, super exclusive nightclub with its red lighting and the sheer amount of couches lined up on the ground floor. Though the whole premise is only half done, we can confirm that it’s a whole new world of total opulence and hedonistic pursuits when you enter. Unfortunately, no photos allowed — you’ll want to be surprised by what’s in store.
We sit down for some tea across the theatre while Sukki gave us details about this mysterious Boudoir Noire afterparty. With quiet excitement, she declares that this will be the biggest burlesque show that Asia will have ever seen. There will be a seven-foot high diamond ring prop of her own design that illuminates on cue and is filled with champagne, which she will be bathing in. If that’s not enough, there’s 200 Swarovski crystals adorning her costume, arranged in a henna design.
Not only does she get to dictate how a Singaporean burlesque show gets to look like for the biggest event of its kind here to date, but she’s the headlining act with intervals featuring performances by The Box — New York City’s highly regarded theatre of varieties in cabaret nouveau style. She promises that it’ll be a party like nothing else ever seen in Singapore Grand Prix history.
Sukki gets a little emotional talking about the upcoming show, which she sees as the apex of all her efforts into making burlesque a respected art form in Singapore. “The fact that I’m representing Singapore, headlining in front of all these Western performers, getting the recognition from all the press so far, having burlesque seen as a valid art form — it’s everything I wanted”.
She pauses. “It’s going to be the happiest point of my life. I have no doubt about it”.
Photos: Ilyas Sholihyn / Delfina Utomo